Freshly Pressed Prize

Near Scauri, in the countryside, in the middle of the olive groves, is a small and not very industrialized oil mill. It has been doing its labors for 50 years now. Although there is no blindfolded donkey turning the millstones anymore, the process has remained pretty straightforward. During the harvesting season (late Oct, all of Nov, and early Dec), this mill operates 24 hours a day to insure the freshness of the product. Unlike wine, olive oil is ready to be used immediately after its production.

Driving up to the mill on a tiny country road, scents in the air of all kinds of grasses and the typical farm smells of hay bales and animals, feed corn and manure were quite present. However, once inside the oil mill (which is open like a double car garage with the doors up and about that size) all those smells are left outside. The perfume of the crushed olives is almost a heady smell. It is magical and delicious. It is an intense bouquet of the whole plant — flower, fruit and leaves — all its stages come to fruition.

It is a colorful scene to the eye: crates and crates of olives stacked on top of each other on one end of the space near the millstones, three of them rotating constantly in a large tub. Each batch takes 30-40 minutes to make the olive paste that will be spread on jute mats or disks. These are hung high up in the barn outside in rows to await use and have the look of freshly minted coins of pale gold.

In the central area where the stacks of mats spread with olive paste are moved to the four presses, sawdust is strewn about to prevent slipping on olive residue. The jute mats stack on a stainless steel disk and the top of the stack ends with another one. These can handle the tremendous pressure that the process involves. Water continually drips down on the stack. The stack looks about half the size when it comes out as when it went under the press. (These mats are discarded into the farm dung heap after their original use. However, they are recycled. They still retain so much oil that they can be used for industrial fuel.) The next step is that centrifugal force separates the oil from the water and the oil from each press is brought by pipes to something that looks like a sink with a faucet below; oil can be put into whatever size container you wish. This whole procedure is very well organized. The oil from one press doesn’t mingle with the oil from another. This insures that the farmer gets the oil from his very own olive trees. That’s important for the comparing (and competition) of taste, scent, density, color, and the amount of yield. The farmer’s pride is in his plant.

The richness of the Italian language comes into full play when you catch these men and women of the land talking about this year’s weather and its effect on the fruit. The nuances are charming to listen to and the enthusiasm and passion of the conversation on this one topic: the cycle of the olive plant in 2011, just makes you want to get into this fruitful art yourself. Apparently olive production was down about 20% this year because of an untimely humidity which caused the tiny white blossoms to fall from the trees.

The olive mill does sell its own oil from this cold press process. It is superior oil. The color is a delight — it looks like a cloudy and fluid form of the gemstone peridot, a form of the mineral olivine or chrysolite. So, I brought home my jewel, my lovely prize from the press. Wish I could offer you some.

Ciao, Sally Fougerousse


Pruning the Coco Palm

The resort where I stayed with my son Peter and his family in Mombasa had at least 60 coco palms on the lawn, near the suites and apartments and spa area. They have to be pruned for the safety of the guests. MY OH MY how interesting is the style of pruning! One night at the resort, there was an event scheduled for the guests. It was an acrobatic show, a circus event. In the sizable piazza of the resort, a pole about 25 inches in diameter and about 50 ft. tall was secured by 4 wires. It was as sturdy as a tree and the Black Panther Brothers of Mombasa put on a great show. These guys, clapping and swaying to a rhythmic beat, performed for an hour. They showed infinite styles for climbing to the top of the pole. Then, also, they did formations of the six of them, hanging from each other in amazing positions. I was so extremely impressed by their agility!

Well, two days later I saw the real thing that probably inspired the act: the gardeners at the resort were pruning the tall coco palms of their flower pods, dead fronds and coconuts. If any one of these heavy objects fell on the guests, there would be injuries (to a child, severe ones) and consequent law suits. These coco palms are from 70-100 feet tall. The flower pods are 3-6 feet long (containing many coconuts that should be removed before maturity; a coco palm can produce 200 coconuts per year but, if pruned well, they deliver 40 ripe fruits that are superior) and the fronds are 13-20 feet long and used for thatching roofs. In fact, everything of the coco palm is able to be used. I would say that the Africans are not only close to nature but understand its greatness. Palm oil is used for cooking, for cosmetics, soaps, fuel and candles. The fibrous husk of the palm is used for clothing, ropes, household items and for cooking. The coconut is good to eat in many ways and coconut milk is really very healthy for purifying the kidneys. Coconut milk is more like water — light and not sweet, unusual but tasty just the same. (In America, we get harvested coconuts; the fruit is fine but the milk is not as fresh from as it is right from the tree).

So…getting back to my gardener story: with my daughter-in-law and three grandchildren, we had the privilege of watching one of the gardeners at close range. With the machete in his belt and bare feet, he shinnied to the top of an 80 feet coco palm in less than a minute. Here was the real acrobat. He and his crew were anxious to protect us from what was being pruned but also wanted to teach us about the coco palm. One of the gardeners, when he descended from the heights without a crane, without a harness or a saddle or cables, hacked away at the outer shell of the coconut, which is like wood. (When we get the fruit in the market, we get it with the bearded inner layer). He whacked off the top so that a small hole appeared and I could drink the milk that was inside. I loved the hype of the Black Panther Brothers act but for me the gardeners reign supreme.

Ciao, Sally Fougerousse

Pruning the Pine

After our brief but destructive storm here, there was much work to be done and therefore jobs to be had. Roofers came to replace those beautiful and characteristic roof tiles that had landed in the streets. Gardeners were everywhere, removing branches that had cracked off of trees; in some cases, they were carting away whole trees that had been uprooted and had fallen against power lines, disturbing the flow of electricity to whole neighborhoods. Of course all kinds of things happened that no one had expected…

The Maritime pines are so beautiful but they are dangerous when planted on a small piece of property. They grow too high, about 75 ft., and when not pruned properly to the umbrella shape, the lower branches get brittle. A turbulent wind can tear them off and they are heavy. Of course, gravity brings them pretty much straight down; but if they are above a neighbor’s carport or roof, they can be extremely destructive. That did happen right next to me. The neighbors wrote a petition and summoned Signora Anna to send her gardeners to trim the pines. It was very exciting for me to watch the operation — first one forked pine and then 7 days later another pine (cleaning up all the needles was another laborious operation). The branches were cut up and then the logs were distributed among the neighbors who have fireplaces, a peace-offering from Signora Anna, I suppose.

I have heard since that there is a school that teaches the trimming of the Maritime pine. This Majestic tree is all over Italy and is kept in shape in every region by those who have learned the art. Pinoli, those wonderful pine nuts, can only be harvested by hand…it is no wonder that they are expensive! With a ladder, the first branch can be reached to attach a cable with pulley that brings the pine pruner into the branches, harnessed in a saddle. He pushes upward with his feet against the tree until he reaches his post. He starts at the bottom leaving about 2 ft. of branch there to form a natural ladder. His electric saw hangs from one cable near him and the branch he has cut off is hooked to a rope and lowered slowly and with precise calculation to the gardeners below. As he descends, he takes off  the remnant of each limb. He doesn’t need the ladder he has created anymore. Once again he lowers himself, in his gear slowly pushing his feet against the trunk, all the way to the ground this time. It is a precise operation and an art. In the end, the tree has a lively symmetry that it did not have 5 hours ago. Most likely it will weather the next storm with much more discretion.

When I watched the pruning of the Maritime pine here in Italy, I was reminded of another rather dramatic gardening event that I had witnessed near Mombasa in Kenya on the coast of the Indian ocean. Next time, I’ll tell you about the pruning of the coco palm.

Ciao, Sally Fougerousse

Life and Survival of the Grape in 2011

Because of the extreme heat of August and early September, the grapes were ready for harvest 2 weeks earlier than usual. In mid-August some vintners did thin out their vines to heighten the taste of those bunches left on the vine. The dry weather at the end did not sour the product as some reports have indicated. Instead, the result is a more intense and sweeter taste overall. Where are the sour grapes? They are in the French mind. France is running ahead for quantity in this year; Italian production is down by 10% but the quality is quite fine. Because July brought variable weather: rain, wind and unseasonable coolness, and then the hot and dry climate later, the farmers of the region say that the grapes developed well and that this is a special year for wine. Memorable. Well-born is the wine of 2011!

From green to gold the vines did turn and that was a sure sign the harvest and the annual wine-making was about to begin. On Sept. 16th in my area of Italy- border of Lazio and Campania – truckloads of grapes were brought in by my neighbors who harmoniously join together in the making of wine, for their annual household supplies. My neighbors have been doing this for at least 40 years and learned this wine culture at home growing up. It is their tradition and they are often disappointed to say that it is not that of their children who drink coca-cola and have also fallen away from the Mediterranean diet. Naturally, the grapes need to be cleaned, de-stemmed and crushed and will be in the vat fermenting for 15-20 days.

We all heard the weather reports that a tempest would come on Sunday, the 19th of Sept. The skies were so clear during the day that it seemed like a prediction with no backbone. However, sure enough, “la bufera” coursed through the area for the early morning hours that Monday, just slightly behind schedule. Whole trees were uprooted, terracotta roof tiles blown off and terrace pot-plant gardens destroyed. Two huge branches of one of the “umbrella” pines crashed outside my balcony, ruining the palm tree and the car port below. Smaller branches flew against my satellite dish and temporarily destroyed TV connections for the 2 apartments in this house. On the beach, the whole outside structure of Wimpy’s Sea Bar lost its existence. Nobody knows where it landed! We had hail in the middle of the night of the 21st, but the grapes survived. They were safely in the vat…

The glory of the grape and its harvest is so special but now with the dampness and the fall having arrived, there are chestnuts and hazelnuts to gather AND the hunt is on for the porcini mushrooms and the truffles. Autumn brings such wonderful and special bounty. Soon the ancient olive tree will offer her fruit as well. I hope our storm did not pelt the earth with the noble olive … or her branches which, in ancient tradition, when offered were a gesture of peace. Peace to you Mother Nature!

Ciao, Sally Fougerousse

Keeping it Sweet and Festive

As we get closer and closer to Easter and deeper and deeper into the Lenten season, “carnevale” has been left behind. All of the “castagne” (deep fat-fried dough balls, the size of a plum spiced with orange-peel and sweetened with honey); the “chiacchiere della nonna” (grandmas sweet fritters): chiacchiere means chat and that always does include a bit of local gossip. The women chat while they are making them and they chat over coffee while they are eating them. They are dusted with powdered sugar which in Italian is called: “zucchero al velo”, sugar veil. Are they wrapping their gossip in a veil? Covering their gossip with sweetness?

So the Italians have fattened up for the lean season. But they resisted putting aside those pastries until the second sunday of Lent. They tend to anticipate celebration way in advance and hang onto it well after its season. It no longer looks as it did on Fat Tuesday, like Disney Land: Betty Boop with a Torrero, Renaissance dames escorted by Superman or Star Wars characters, a harlequin clown with a Turkish belly-dancer or Snow White with Pulcinella. The children who were strewing confetti and serpentines when on the promenade by the sea every Sunday, indulged with gobs of Neapolitan candies and running wild and laughing and full of caprices are now in a more serious phase of the calendar year. The shop windows display First Communion dresses and suits. However, the “pastiera” is appearing in bakeries already, that Easter tart composed of ricotta cheese, sweetened and tempered with candied citrus and orange peel. It is a type of cheesecake. Also the “colomba” (Easter cake in the form of a dove) is already in evidence everywhere – groceries and bakeries. After all, we did celebrate Laetare Sunday; a joyful break after so much penitence and sacrifice!!! In Italy, there is NO DARK GLOOM. They just keep it sweet and festive…

Ciao, Sally Fougerousse

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